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Seniors Reflect on Youthful Days at Virgil Junior High

October 27, 1986|DAVE LARSEN | Times Staff Writer

"I remember the old termite-ridden gym," 71-year-old Russell Cole of Altadena said. "Somebody had drilled a hole in the wall so the boys could peek into the girls' dressing room."

The once-blond hair of the teen-ager of those days has turned snowy white, as was the case with many of the other men (about 50 of them) in attendance the other day at the Elks Lodge in San Pedro.

But the memories were all keen for this one special day when everyone assembled--as they had in the previous six years--for a most unusual reunion: not of a college, or a high school, but of a junior high school.

The school is Virgil, still in existence at 152 N. Vermont Ave., and those at the reunion had been pupils there in the first half of the 1930s, as the nation tried to fight its way out of the Depression. Although the school was coeducational, the reunions so far have been all male.

Little Money

"Nobody had any money, so nobody missed it," 66-year-old King Allen of Palos Verdes Estates philosophized.

Memories from more than half a century ago flowed like the pre-luncheon drinks, such as when 68-year-old Ben Saelman of North Hollywood regaled a former classmate with the recollection of a certain gym teacher:

"He was big on discipline. Once, when he was taking roll call, one of the guys wisecracked 'president' instead of 'present.'

" 'OK, Mr. Hoover (President at the time), up against the wall,' the teacher replied. He gave him a swift swat with a paddle.

"That teacher was something. I remember when a pupil didn't answer politely and was made to squat and walk like a duck around the field. The next day the kid's mother showed up and chased the teacher around the field in protest."

Paddles apparently weren't an unfamiliar part of life at Virgil. "If you were in a fight," said 66-year-old Doug Langbein of Westminster, "there was a vice principal who would hand the good guy in the battle a paddle. If you didn't swat your attacker hard enough, then it was handed to him to use on you."

Earlier Shared Histories

As if going back to junior high weren't enough, some of those present had attended the same grammar school--generally Alexandria Avenue or Cahuenga. Langbein was in the same Alexandria kindergarten class as 67-year-old Charles Pedrotta of Studio City. Saelman attended the same Cahuenga kindergarten as 69-year-old Dick Walser of North Hollywood.

One of the day's features was a group photo taken in front of Virgil Junior High. In the front row was one kid, wearing corduroys and a sweater, destined for stardom in a way he hadn't expected.

"I was the second-smallest boy in the class (winter of 1934)," said 66-year-old Joseph A. Wapner, retired Superior Court judge, but known now for his role on television's "People's Court."

"I remember that the girls I liked the best were always too tall," Wapner joked.

Even though it was Depression era, Wapner said, the Virgil school had a Thrift Committee, and he was its president. "We went to the home rooms and encouraged kids to open bank accounts."

Many in attendance were natives of Los Angeles, and the topic of the moment was the good old days at Virgil. Passed from hand to hand were faded black-and-white snapshots of pupils in knickers, of an elderly issue of The Virgiliad, the school newspaper that chronicled the latest doings of the Soap Modeling Club and the Harmonica Band.

Dick Twohy, 67, of Palos Verdes Estates, produced a red V that the students wore on their sweaters.

"The teacher I remember most was Mrs. Hawley," he said. "She not only taught mechanical drafting, but she ran the Model Airplane Club, and we got to try out our creations on the field after school."

On one of the luncheon tables was a reminder of the great Long Beach earthquake of March, 1933. Because of it, and some damage to the school discovered later, the graduation invitation for the next year's summer listed the location of the old Fox Belmont Theater.

'Kind of a Rebel'

Pedrotta fondly recalled his responsibility as chief of the noon patrol, which directed traffic around the school. "I was kind of a rebel, and once when I didn't salute our superior officer, he called my mother and said I'd be kicked off unless I shaped up."

For some of the old-timers, such as 68-year-old Jim Hays of Santa Maria, it was their first reunion--and Hays immediately recognized King Allen.

"The last time we saw each other was in 1937," Allen said. "I drove up to a Union (Oil) station at Third and Normandie, and there was Jim pumping gas."

The prices in the good old days didn't go without mention. "You could go to the Pasadena or Glendale Civic Auditoriums and dance to a live band for a quarter," Allen said. "Ozzie Nelson had a band, and Harriet sang."

Saelman summoned up the memory of walking a mile and a half each way to school, and of cutting lawns to earn a quarter.

Some arrived at their classes on wheels. "I took the Sunset double-decker bus and always sat upstairs," Cole said.

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